Slaves have no story of their own.
Maybe it's not 100% fair to suggest that they live without the feelings and aspirations and questions that the rest of humanity considers second-nature, but really, slaves have no story of their own. Personal stories – whether they are the narratives of an individual, a family or a people – require differences. Slaves have no differences. They are interchangeable, defined by their functions, not by their qualities.
The only place the story of a slave, or of slaves or of slavery can be told is from a place of freedom. The stories we know of slaves are told by free people – free people who were once slaves, free people who knew slaves, free people who confronted slavery.
I hope and pray that anyone subjected to the moral repugnancy of enslavement was never completely a slave. Freedom is the natural state of human being; we burst into this world by liberating ourselves from total dependency on the sacred wombs that nurture us, and suddenly we become free. Free does not mean without dependence, but it does mean the ability to choose, to have options, to consent or resist. I hope and pray that even those subjected to the worst kinds of oppressive enslavement have a place inside to which they can retreat and remind themselves that they were not created to serve the whims of another human being.
But the fact of the matter is that as slavery penetrates deeper and deeper into the human soul, it swallows those places of freedom one by one. The hope of rediscovering the exhilarating, terrifying freedom that is a newborn's first encounter with the world id dampened and buried under the sludge and drudge of surrendering one's will – voluntarily or otherwise – to another person. Eventually, slaves have no story of their own. They work, they eat, they sleep, they perform their perfunctory physical functions, from elimination to reproduction, and they die. One slave is the same as any other, the details perhaps rearranged, but the names, the faces, the vital statistics irrelevant. Slaves have no story of their own.
The story of the Israelites in Egypt that is told in the beginning of the book of Exodus is the story of slaves with no story of their own. It begins, ironically, with names – the book is called Sh'mot, "Names," in Hebrew – of the sons of Jacob, that is, the actual children of Israel who settled under their brother Joseph's protection in Egypt. And we are all familiar with the ominous words that begin the story of enslavement – "a new king arose in Egypt" – and from that verse forward, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Israel have no names. They are interchangeable. They are known because of the cities they build, Pithom and Ramses, cities made of stone and mortar, not flesh and blood, which nevertheless have stories of their own. The slaves have no story of their own.
A slave-baby floating down the river – maybe one of many such nameless and story-less slave-babies floating down the river – is plucked up and given an Egyptian name, and with it a return of his freedom. The rest of the book of Exodus and the three books that follow are his story, and in the telling of that story a generation begins to rediscover its freedom and finally has a story, has stories to tell.
Each year as Spring pushes out of the earth like a newborn we gather around a table with family and friends and we tell our story. We who have been freed redeem the stories, if not the names, of the hundreds of thousands who never had a personal story. The longest part of a traditional Seder is the section we call maggid – "telling." We were slaves in Egypt, we were rescued by God's mighty hand and outstretched arm. We were idolators, but now we are believers in the one true God. We were wanderers, and we wandered into slavery, and here are all the things the Egyptians did to us, and all the things we did to the Egyptians, and all the things we learned from what we did to each other.
We tell about the facts as best we know them, and when we run out of facts, we add stories about the facts, and when we run out of stories about the facts, we make things up we wish were facts. It wasn't just ten plagues, it was fifty, no two hundred fifty, maybe more – we say it like reverse-Abraham, bargaining God away from compassion and into our tall tale of empowerment.
We have stories about resistance inserted into the record of passivity. We have stories of passionate intimacy inserted into the record of animal reproduction. We have stories of heroism inserted into the record of collective apathy. We insert names into the record of the nameless.
We show the souvenirs we collected of slavery, bones and bitters, mortar and matza. Okay, they are not the actual souvenirs, but we recreate them the better to tell the story. We toast our freedom, we sing, we converse, we recline. We teach the very youngest that the first thing a free person does is ask questions, and we teach the parents of those who have learned to question that they have to listen and provide appropriate answers.
Long before we have become drunk on four cups of wine, we have become drunk with our stories. We will prove, on this night of remembering, that we are slaves no longer. We are free. We have a story of our own. I have a story of my own. You have a story of your own.
And then, as the soup simmers and the children fidget, and the impatient ones roll their eyes, we come to the reason for it all. I must say, for a very long time I believed that it was all summed up in the last paragraph of the telling: In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself, to see herself as if having personally come out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. I used to think that was the point: our empathy for the moment reclaimed the humanity of the slaves and made us more human in the process. It made us intolerant of slavery, in any form and by any name.
But I stopped too soon. As poetic as those words are, b'khol dor vador, "in every generation," they are meant to inspire, but not to conclude. Because the lesson is not about our ancestors, not about our past, not about our reclaiming what is irretrievably lost. The lesson is not about feeling the pain of the black man stolen from his native land and sold in a Virginia marketplace. It is not about knowing the horror of a Bangkok eight-year-old sold for the pleasure of a vacationing European. It is not about understanding the despair of an anonymous Saudi Muslim betting his life that death is a better deal.
Those are important lessons, but they are all about someone else. What do we learn about ourselves, that is, what do we learn about the nature of the freedom we live, the story we recite, from our obsessive telling and telling about telling and telling about telling about telling?
The lesson is in three ordinary Hebrew words that we recite while holding high a cup of wine we are not yet prepared to drink. These are the words: l'fikhakh anachnu chayyavim. Therefore, we must. Therefore, we are obligated. Therefore, we feel compelled.
The story we have just told is the reason and the rationale for our devotion to God, Torah and Israel. It is the reason for our peoplehood. It is the reason for our covenant. It is the reason for our seeking and holding our home, our land, our homeland. It is the back story of WHAT WE DO.
Our story compels us to be who we are and to do what we do. By telling the story, we make it our own, and by making it our own, we come to own the consequences as well. Therefore, we must. Therefore, we are obligated. Therefore, we feel compelled.
Do you think there is only one story for us to tell? Nonsense. The story we tell collaboratively and collectively brings us to the moment of "therefore" collaboratively and collectively. The lesson we take away is not just "we were slaves and now we are free and therefore we are grateful and conscientious."
Why do you do what you do? Why do you pursue your job, your career, your hobby, your interest? Why are you the kind of family member you are – parent, child, sibling, cousin, grandparent, aunt or uncle? Why do you study what you study? Why do you seek the friends that you seek?
Why do you do what you do?
Without a story of your own, you have not been freed from slavery. You might just as well be building the great cities of Pithom and Ramses. You ask no questions. You make no choices. You go along to get along. You have no name.
The lesson of the Seder is that your story must be told and it must end with a paragraph that begins with these words: therefore I must, therefore I am obligated, therefore I feel commanded. L'fikhah, therefore. It is the end of every story. It is the end of every slavery. It is the beginning of all humanity.
Slaves have no story of their own. But you do.